There were hundreds of Andriy Shevchenkos dancing at Hampden Park as Ukraine beat Sweden 2-1 in extra time in the Euro 2020 round of 16 to win their first-ever knockout tie a European Championship. As Ukraine’s greatest-ever player paced every inch of the technical area, he waved his players forward to prevent any late, late Sweden goal. He called for calm and focus as pandemonium ensued around him.
Then came the full-time whistle, and Shevchenko himself looked lost. He’s scored some of the biggest goals in AC Milan and Ukraine’s history, but how to celebrate their most famous win as manager? It had been a nervy match but, in the 121st minute, just as penalties loomed, 24-year-old Dnipro-1 striker Artem Dovbyk stooped low to head the winner past Robin Olsen. Eventually, Shevchenko started hugging anything in blue-and-yellow.
The Ukraine players mobbed unlikely match-winner Dovbyk. Shevchenko’s children in the stands went absolutely bonkers, as did the hundreds of others wearing his famous No. 7 shirt. The stadium announcer’s plea for supporters to maintain social distancing was a forlorn hope, drowned out against Ukrainian euphoria.
Ukraine are now in the quarterfinals, advancing from Group C as the only best third-placed team with three points. Euro 2020 has been the tournament of the plucky underdogs; though the likes of Switzerland (who knocked out France), Czech Republic (eliminators of Netherlands) and Ukraine may be less renowned football nations, they have made a mockery of pre-tournament predictions. This win for Ukraine at Hampden Park was absolution.
After Oleksandr Zinchenko scored his wonderful opener in the first half, he clasped his finger to his lips. “I wanted to show to those people they should be quiet as we are a team that deserves [praise] as we fight to do our tasks,” Zinchenko said after the game. “I showed they need to support us.”
Despite their fortuitous qualification for the knockout phase, his players trusted in the process and culture developed by Shevchenko, the man who scored 48 goals in 111 appearances for his country. They had kept Shevchenko’s words at the forefront of their minds throughout. “My message to the players was to believe, we are here and this is our chance to change the future,” he had told them prematch. “We had achieved that.” But now comes their greatest test, with England lying in wait in Rome.
The win over Sweden is vindication for Shevchenko’s approach, and how he has fostered this winning mentality within a squad built predominantly from Ukraine’s Premier League sides Shakhtar Donetsk and Dynamo Kiev, along with a handful of overseas-based players. But Shevchenko’s stardust from a career that saw him win the 2004 Ballon d’Or and the 2003 Champions League with AC Milan hasn’t automatically morphed into him being a decent manager. Instead, he’s bided his time and learned.
This Ukraine has been a synergy of the pressing and philosophy Shevchenko learnt from the great Dynamo Kiev manager Valeriy Lobanovskyi (seen as one of the forefathers of gegenpressing, and a great influence on former RB Leipzig manager and sporting director Ralf Rangnick), but also the traditional Ukrainian style built on winning duels, recovering quickly and playing on the counter-attack. It’s a mixture of these two approaches that have been so effective, with Ukraine using their two brilliant wing-backs in Zinchenko and Oleksandr Karavayev to stretch Sweden wide and create their two decisive goals.
Shevchenko’s been known to mix 4-3-3 with 3-5-2, which has seen Ukraine beat Portugal and Spain, and draw with France in the last 20 months. He’s favoured false No. 9s, then played with a more traditional striker in Roman Yaremchuk, and has mixed up using wingers cutting inside or looking to overlap and has made this group a multi-dimensional, tricky team to play against. But they’re also physical. “They’re so strong,” said one experienced scout. “My God, they’re so strong.”
Shevchenko has drawn on experiences gleaned as a player under Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, but he’s also done things his own way. Ukraine elected not to bring him in as coach in 2012 as he lacked the requisite qualifications, so he did his studies and took on the assistant manager post for Euro 2016, working under Mykhaylo Fomenko. Ukraine finished rock bottom of their group, and he was controversially chosen to succeed Fomenko after he was sacked.
Doubts over Shevchenko’s coaching acumen grew louder after they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but the Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF) kept the faith in their legendary striker. He knew his record as a player brought higher expectations, but he trusted in his quiet leadership and the country’s young talent breaking through, which had seen Ukraine win the 2019 Under-20 World Cup.
He shifted away from some of the experienced old heads, and it paid off with an impressive UEFA Nations League campaign in 2019 as Ukraine won their group to be promoted to League A. He was linked with the managerial vacancies at former clubs AC Milan and Chelsea, but he stayed with his Ukraine project and he’s fostered a close-knit group who look out for one another and leave individual egos at the door.
Zinchenko was devastated his Manchester City side lost the Champions League final to Chelsea in May, but was quickly cheered by the “atmosphere” in the national team. Serhiy Kryvtsov describes the team as his “second family.”
“This victory I’d like to dedicate you to Besyedin, he received a horrible injury — when I came back to the locker room, I was beside myself. I’m sure he’ll come back stronger,” Zinchenko said.
Shevchenko added: “He’s been through a lot of horrible things in the last few years — we will support him and play against England for him.”
The postmatch dedications spread to the fans, too. The team feels this connection with their fans and recognised their travelling support in Hampden Park as they went over and joined them in their synchronised thunderclap. “I think some people would’ve spent their last money to get here — we heard you, and thank you so much for your support,” Shevchenko added.
Two players threw their shirts into the crowd, as two of Shevchenko’s four boys joined their father on the pitch and celebrated with the players.
“I said several times before, it doesn’t matter what team you play for and if you’re part of a team, it doesn’t matter where you play, you have to give your all,” Zinchenko said. “I will do everything possible and impossible for it.”
If Sweden was an uphill battle, then Ukraine are now planning to navigate the English mountain in their own stylee. They’ll look to their own local knowledge, with Zinchenko teammates with Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, John Stones and Phil Foden.
“I get asked, ‘Who is the strongest opponent you’ve ever played against?’ Well, it’s the footballers from Man City, those I see every day in the training,” Zinchenko said. “Sterling is one of the best wingers in the world. He’s in great form, he makes a difference. We need to pay attention to him and we will need to try to stop him as he’s on a roll now.”
Zinchenko said England’s “subs bench probably cost as much as three Ukrainian teams” but he is relishing their underdog status.
The Ukraine squad watched the first half of England vs. Germany as a team, before getting their last-minute preparations for Sweden underway, but Shevchenko will already have a tactical plan for Gareth Southgate’s side ahead of Saturday’s quarterfinal in Rome (LIVE at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN+ in the U.S.).
Shevchenko has already coped with Oleksandr Zubkov‘s injury in their opening defeat to Netherlands and has also tried using Marlos and Ruslan Malinovskyi before settling on a 3-5-2 for Sweden. Zinchenko was outstanding — he’s surely the man primed to take on Shevchenko’s mantle as national hero on the left, but this is more than a one-man Ukraine team like in the past.
The defence is anchored by the brilliant Mykola Matviyenko, who is reportedly on Arsenal‘s radar. The midfield is steered by the experienced Taras Stepanenko and the energetic Serhiy Sydorchuk — who struck the post against Sweden.
Operating off the right wing is West Ham’s Andriy Yarmolenko — from the Arjen Robben camp of being a one-footed player who is still fiercely difficult to nullify despite the fact he’s always going to cut in on his left. He’s already scored a wondergoal against Netherlands and grabbed their opener against North Macedonia.
Then you have the tricky 6-foot-3 Roman Yaremchuk up front, who also has two goals to his name, and Viktor Tsygankov‘s impact off the bench. Add in match-winner Dovbyk and their other willing protagonists and England will appreciate they’re facing a difficult team.
“To achieve a result like against Sweden, we needed to believe and to be strong,” Shevchenko said. “The English team is a great team; they have a great subs bench as well. We understand how tough this game will be. They are incredibly difficult to score against, but their strength shouldn’t scare us.”
A win in Rome, and it will be his No.17 which will be the go-to shirt for Ukraine fans.
“The power is not how you punch, the power is how you stand up,” Zinchenko said. “They have a good set of footballers [but] this shouldn’t be scary for us; it should motivate us. Everything is possible in this life, and we will do everything for it.”